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Here's Why Men's Olympic Soccer Is an Under-23 Tournament


The 2024 Olympic Games are rapidly approaching as athletes finalize their preparations for Paris. Among the most intriguing sports at this year's event will be the men's soccer tournament, where new champions figure to be crowned after Brazil, gold medal winners at each of the last two Olympics, failed to qualify.

Unlike the women's soccer tournament at the Olympics, the men's soccer tournament will consist of nation's U-23 squads. That means that many of the world's biggest stars won't be competing, though there will be some exceptions as there are three slots available for players over the age of 23.

The primary reason that men's Olympic soccer is a U-23 tournament is to mitigate competition for the FIFA World Cup. The World Cup has been the dominating men's international soccer competition since its inception, and FIFA wants to ensure that it remains uncontested in the top spot.

Additionally, clubs often don't permit their players to take part in both the Euros or Copa America as well as the Olympics, which is why there aren't many international stars filling the three available age 23+ spots on each roster.

An example of this is Kylian Mbappe, who stars for the host nation of France. Mbappe swapped domestic clubs from PSG to Real Madrid during the summer transfer window, and his new club barred him from participating in the 2024 Olympics, as he'd already played in the EURO and a full season in France.

The Olympics are not included in FIFA's international calendar, which requires players to be allowed to be made available for their national teams at certain windows throughout the season, namely major competitions or qualifiers.

There is some history of Olympic soccer being an amateur event, too. Back in the 1930s, soccer was not included in the 1932 Olympics, before returning in 1936 as an amateur competition. By the time it reverted back to a professional event, FIFA had already grown into a world renowned entity and the World Cup was the premier international soccer competition.

In the 1980s, European and South American teams were restricted from fielding professionals who participated in the World Cup, while other countries could bring their very best. That rule went to the wayside in 1992, when the U-23 rule came into place.


Source: Here's Why Men's Olympic Soccer Is an Under-23 Tournament

Ranking the top 25 men's soccer players of the 21st century


Jul 23, 2024, 09:39 AM ET

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar are just some of the names who come up in the debate over the best soccer players in the 21st century. Then there are upcoming stars such as Kylian Mbappé and players of a different era such as Ronaldinho. Where do they stand?

The conversation can be a never-ending one. How do you rank legends of the game -- some the best we've ever seen -- against each other?

Editor's Picks
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    It was no easy feat (and disagreements will surely follow), but after collating together thousands of votes, we present to you our ranking of the best 20 male soccer players of the 21st century -- and five others who just missed the list.

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    Key accomplishments: 10-time LaLiga champion, seven-time Copa del Rey winner, four-time Champions League winner, six-time Champions League top scorer, 17-time FIFA FIFPro World XI, World Cup winner, two-time Copa América winner, two-time FIFA World Cup Golden Ball winner, eight-time Ballon d'Or winner, record goal scorer for Barcelona (672) and Argentina (109)

    Messi winning the World Cup in Argentina in 2022 was perhaps the biggest Hollywood ending that soccer has ever seen. After losing the 2014 final, it looked like it would never happen for Messi, who had won everything else in the game for club and country, but the crowning moment of his career finally arrived at the age of 34. He scored twice in the final as Argentina beat France on penalties, sparking an outpouring of emotion and celebrations around the globe.

    "This guy transcends rivalries -- even between Brazil and Argentina," Brazil legend Ronaldo said. "I saw Brazilians and people all over the world rooting for Messi. It's a fitting finale for a genius who has marked an era." -- Sam Marsden

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    Key accomplishments: Five-time Ballon d'Or winner, five-time Champions League winner, three-time Premier League winner, two-time LaLiga winner, two-time Serie A winner, record for most men's international goals (130)

    Cristiano Ronaldo's story is one of a supremely talented athlete, but matched with a drive and will to win. His career is best summed up by one of his own quotes: "If you don't believe you are the best, then you will never achieve all that you are capable of." Ronaldo has shown that belief throughout more than two decades at the top of world soccer and often proved it to be true.

    "He is the best," his former Real Madrid manager, Jose Mourinho, said. "I saw Maradona a couple of times. I never saw Pelé. But Cristiano is amazing. This man is the best. Cristiano is a goal machine. There will never be another Ronaldo." -- Rob Dawson

    imageimage3. Thierry Henry

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, UEFA European Championship winner, two-time Premier League winner, LaLiga winner, two-time FA Cup winner, Champions League winner, Ligue 1 winner, Copa del Rey winner, Club World Cup winner

    Thierry Henry revolutionized the role of the number 9 in soccer. Tall, quick, physical, intelligent, determined, arrogant and charismatic, he represented a new generation of strikers. One of the greatest sportsmen of his generation, he won pretty much everything possible and scored unforgettable goals during his career. But his most amazing feat is undoubtedly going the whole Premier League season unbeaten with Arsenal in 2004. He was outstanding in that campaign, leading his team to an achievement never repeated since in modern English football.

    "I believe Thierry was on the same level as Pele and Maradona, definitely. He was an exceptional football player, but as well a combination of a modern player, huge physical talent, technical talent, but as well special intelligence. He was one of the greatest players I've ever seen," his former coach Arsène Wenger said. -- Julien Laurens

    imageimage4. Zinedine Zidane

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, UEFA European Championship winner, two-time Serie A winner, Champions League winner, LaLiga winner, Ballon d'Or winner, Intercontinental Cup winner

    Zinedine Zidane transformed soccer into a form of art. His elegance with the ball, his incredible technical ability and his skills made him a magician. He will also be remembered forever for netting two goals in the 1998 World Cup final, of course, but probably even more for scoring the most beautiful goal in a Champions League final ever. His volley with Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 was the purest you will ever see, and with his weak foot as well!

    "Playing alongside him was just incredible. There were games where opponents could not get close to him, could not get the ball off him. The ball used to be glued to his feet. Even at training, he would be unplayable at times!" his former teammate Robert Pires said. -- Laurens

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    Key accomplishments: Ballon d'Or winner, six-time Champions League winner, four-time LaLiga winner, World Cup finalist, Croatia's most-capped player, joint-most trophies won with Real Madrid

    "I'd like to ask you to never retire." As news conference questions go, it was unconventional, but the Italian journalist's plea -- after Modrić and Croatia were eliminated from Euro 2024 -- was met with applause, echoing the sentiment. Everybody loves Modrić. "As well as being a top player, one of the best in the world, he's even more spectacular as a person," Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said.

    More than any other player, Modrić was fundamental to creating Madrid's relentless winning culture over the past decade. There's no one standout moment -- bar, perhaps, leading underdogs Croatia to a World Cup final in 2018 -- but rather year after year of consistent excellence. -- Alex Kirkland

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    Key accomplishments: World Cup winner, seven-time Ligue 1 winner, four-time French Cup winner

    Arguably the best soccer player in the world right now, Mbappé has followed the path of a prodigy. He made his professional debut at 16, scored his first goal at 17, played for France at 18 and won the World Cup at 19! His move from Paris Saint-Germain to Real Madrid this summer will take him to new heights and will strengthen even more his status as the heir of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

    In 2018, Mbappé took the world by storm and became the second teenager in history alongside Pelé to score in a World Cup final. In 2022, he made more World Cup history with his hat trick in the World Cup final loss against Argentina. "He is just a phenomenon. He is such a generational talent. You just don't see many players like him. He is only 25, but his career is already amazing," Thierry Henry said about his compatriot. -- Laurens

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    Key accomplishments: World Cup winner, two-time European Championship winner, four-time Champions League winner, nine-time LaLiga winner, Ballon d'Or runner-up

    On July 11, 2010, Iniesta changed Spanish football forever. In the 116th minute of the World Cup final in Johannesburg, South Africa -- with the game, tied at 0-0, having gone to extra time -- Iniesta collected a pass from Cesc Fabregas inside the penalty box and coolly fired the bouncing ball low past Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Cue euphoria. Spain won the game 1-0, lifting the World Cup for the first and only time, and Iniesta instantly became the most popular man in the country.

    An elegant, skillful playmaker, he also was a key member of one of the best club sides of the modern era -- Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. -- Kirkland

    imageimage8. Xavi Hernández

    Key accomplishments: World Cup winner, two-time European Championship winner, two-time Champions League winner, eight-time LaLiga winner

    Xavi had so many career highs that it's impossible to pick just one. You might choose Barcelona's famous 6-2 win at rivals Real Madrid, with Xavi playing a part in four of the goals. Or his performance in the 2009 Champions League final, supplying the pass for Lionel Messi's headed opening goal.

    You could pick Barcelona's dominant 3-1 win over Manchester United in 2011. For a game that summed up an era, you'd highlight Spain's 4-0 demolition of Italy at Euro 2012, the apotheosis of their tiki-taka short-passing style that Xavi personified.

    But let's choose an entire season: Xavi's imperial 2008-09, when the midfielder -- arguably the game's best-ever passer -- registered a staggering 20 assists in 35 LaLiga matches. -- Kirkland

    imageimage9. Ronaldo Nazário

    Key accomplishments: Two-time FIFA World Cup winner, two-time Ballon d'Or winner, two-time Copa América winner, three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Golden Ball winner 1998 World Cup, Golden Boot winner 2002 World Cup

    The original Ronaldo was probably the fastest, most powerful striker running with the ball in the history of the game, capable of variations at pace and able to slow down, keep his head still and shoot at goal with cool precision. All of these virtues were best seen in the 20th century -- but the 21st century came up with the best storyline. Twice his knee collapsed beneath him and he was left howling in gruesome pain; many thought the second time was the end of his career.

    In the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, Inter Milan, his club in Italy, could not get him fit. Brazil took charge of his recovery, and Ronaldo took the tournament by storm, carrying a side that nearly failed to qualify all the way to a memorable triumph. It is one of the great comeback stories in the history of sport. -- Tim Vickery

    imageimage10. Ronaldinho

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, Ballon d'Or winner, Copa América winner, two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, two-time LaLiga winner

    If longevity were not a factor in defining the greatest of all time, then Ronaldinho would certainly be a candidate for his feats during his first three years with Barcelona. From 2003 to 2006, there was no better show in soccer. There have been few, if any, more talented players in the history of the global game, and all too briefly Ronaldinho captivated with his childlike glee at his own achievements, reminding so many of why they fell in love with the sport in the first place.

    A disappointing 2006 World Cup was a turning point, and he appeared to grow weary of the sacrifices needed to stay at the top level. But those three years were unforgettable. -- Vickery

    imageimage11. Zlatan Ibrahimović

    Key accomplishments: 511 career goals, scored at least one Champions League goal with six teams, 12 league titles with five European clubs, named to UEFA's team of the year four times, Sweden's leading career scorer, represented Sweden at six major tournaments

    "I can't help but laugh at how perfect I am." There has never existed an athlete who was as good as Zlatan Ibrahimović said he was, but the 6-foot-5 striker did as well as anyone could -- and for as long as anyone could -- at approaching that level. He was the purest scorer this side of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ibrahimović put the ball in the net at least once in four different decades, and he kept improving into his 30s. Oh, and he also scored at least 30 goals in all competitions six times between 2011 and 2019, peaking with an incredible 50-goal campaign with Paris Saint-Germain in 2015-16.

    Ibrahimović was the personification of artistry and brute force at the same time. -- Bill Connelly

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    Key accomplishments: Three-time league player of the season (twice in Premier League, once in Bundesliga), Champions League winner, six-time Premier League champion, seven-time FA Cup or EFL Cup champion

    De Bruyne has been the most consistently brilliant attacker on the most consistently brilliant team in Premier League history. After a frustrating early experience at Chelsea, De Bruyne erupted for 16 goals and 23 assists in all competitions in one season at Wolfsburg, moved to Manchester City and, after a transition year, became the main cog of the Pep Guardiola era.

    In nine seasons with City, he has combined 102 goals with 161 assists in all competitions; he has been the best table setter in England for most of a decade; and, when necessary, he has been more than happy to put the ball in the net himself, often from range. Just a brilliant all-around attacker. -- Connelly

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    Key accomplishments: World Cup winner, six-time Champions League winner, four-time LaLiga winner, three-time Bundesliga winner

    Toni Kroos' superpower? Passing the ball better than anybody, more accurately and more often. Kroos successfully played 20,780 passes in his 10 years in LaLiga -- more than any other player -- with a league-high completion rate (among those who played 5,000-plus minutes) of 93.6%. It might not be as exciting as scoring goals or dribbling, but if one man set the tempo of Real Madrid's all-time great midfield in the past decade, it was Kroos, one pass at a time.

    His finest work? This through ball for Vinícius Júnior in last season's Champions League, bisecting Bayern Munich's defence. It was a pass so good, it made teammate Jude Bellingham stop and applaud as the play was unfolding. -- Kirkland

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    Key accomplishments: World Cup winner, two-time European Championship winner, four-time Champions League winner, five-time LaLiga winner, 11-time FIFPRO World 11 nominee

    Ask Real Madrid fans to pick their favourite Sergio Ramos moment and they won't hesitate: the 2014 Champions League final, the 93rd minute and the most important goal in the club's history. Real Madrid were seconds away from losing to archrivals Atlético Madrid on the biggest stage in club football, until Ramos' header found the net, levelling at 1-1 and forcing extra time. Real Madrid won the match, picked up their first European Cup in 12 years and kicked off an era of unparalleled success.

    "I remember it with a smile," Ramos told UEFA when asked about the goal in 2016. "At the end of the day, that will be the lasting memory. I'll be able to show it to my son, my grandchildren." -- Kirkland

    imageimage15. Carles Puyol

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, six-time LaLiga champion, three-time Champions League winner, two-time Club World Cup winner, UEFA European Championship winner

    Puyol was not known for goals. He scored three in 100 appearances for Spain. As a centre-back, his forte was keeping them out. One of his three scores, though, was one of the most significant goals in the history of Spanish soccer. Climbing highest at a corner, he thumped a header past Manuel Neuer in the 73rd minute to give Spain a 1-0 win over Germany in the 2010 World Cup semifinal. It was a goal that displayed the strength, desire and commitment that characterised Puyol's career. Spain went on to win the World Cup for the first and only time in their history.

    "Puyol puts his face where most would be afraid to put their foot," said legendary Italian defender Franco Baresi. That was Puyol. -- Marsden

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    Key accomplishments: Four-time LaLiga winner, five-time Champions League winner, four-time Ligue 1 winner, three-time Copa del Rey winner, five-time Club World Cups winner, Ballon d'Or winner, UEFA Nations League winner

    From being a prodigy at Lyon when he started his career at 17 in 2005 to joining Real Madrid at 21 in 2002 to then becoming the best player in the world and winning the Ballon d'Or almost 20 years later in 2022, Benzema went through a lot in his career. He was criticised for his lack of efficiency at times in front of goal, but he became a wonderful team player, helping Cristiano Ronaldo to shine and Real Madrid to win trophies before becoming the superstar after CR7's departure in the summer of 2019. In five seasons from 2019 to 2023, he scored 30, 27, 30, 44 and 31 goals, adding 51 assists in total over this period too. He was unstoppable and produced his best football while over the age of 30.

    "Like great French wine, Benzema becomes even better with age. He is one of the footballers with the highest IQ and intelligence in the game and an incredible desire to always help his team and be the best," Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. -- Laurens

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    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, nine-time LaLiga champion, three-time Champions League winner, three-time Club World Cup winner, UEFA European Championship winner

    No one summed up the role and importance of Busquets better than former Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. "You watch the game, you don't see Busquets," he said. "But if you watch Busquets, you see the whole game." While teammates Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi took the plaudits, they would all say that their success would not have been possible without Busquets cleaning up and starting attacks at the base of the midfield.

    There is no one moment or season but rather sustained excellence over more than a decade. (Although there is his trademark drag back move with the ball at his feet.) In 15 seasons with Barcelona's first team, he never played fewer than 40 matches, winning everything there is to win for club and country. -- Marsden

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    Key accomplishments: UEFA Champions League winner, 10-time Bundesliga champion, LaLiga winner, two-time World Soccer Player of the Year, two-time Ballon d'Or Striker of the Year, UEFA Player of the Year, seven-time Bundesliga leading goal scorer, 83 international goals (most for a Polish player, fourth most for any European man)

    Lewandowski is one of the most consistent and technically brilliant forwards of the 21st century, but he will forever be known for the time he made Pep Guardiola smile like a drunken romantic. Early in the 2015-16 season, Guardiola's Bayern Munich trailed Wolfsburg 1-0 at halftime; Lewandowski entered the match for the second half and proceeded to score in the 51st (with his left foot), 52nd (with his right foot from distance), 55th (off a rebound), 57th (on a counterattack) and 60th minutes.

    On the last one, Lewandowski was almost imitating the technique on the Bundesliga logo. That makes sense, as he and his Bayern team defined the Bundesliga for his entire eight-year stay in Munich. -- Connelly

    imageimage19. Kaká

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, Ballon d'Or winner, UEFA Champions League winner, FIFA World Player of the Year (2007), LaLiga winner, Serie A winner

    The last Brazilian to be chosen as World Player of the Year is the son of a prominent engineer, and one could say Kaká constructed his career with methodical precision. Kaká was at his best in his first spell with AC Milan from 2003 to 2009, when he excelled as an attacking midfielder with few frills, flicks and tricks but with a burst of acceleration, sustained power, vision and an eye for goal.

    Injuries took away some of his speed and brought about a relatively early decline, but in his prime, he was an almost unstoppable force whose lack of ornamentation made the game look very simple. -- Vickery

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    Key accomplishments: UEFA Champions League winner, two-time LaLiga winner, five-time Ligue 1 winner, FIFA Puskas Award (2011), Brazil's all-time top goal scorer

    The boy prince has never quite grown into the king of the game; the World Player of the Year award, always seen as an objective, has proved elusive, and he has yet to win a major title with his country. Neymar also is widely associated with antics and excessive diving. But it would be unwise to write off his career as a complete disappointment. He has scored more goals for Brazil than anyone else -- a mighty achievement -- and he has produced moments of exceptional magic, especially in his time with Barcelona. And there are still further chapters to be written. -- Vickery

    imageJust missed the list 21. Andrea Pirlo

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, two-time UEFA Champions League winner, six-time Serie A winner, three-time Serie A Footballer of the Year

    So great was the Italian maestro's impact on the game that the "Pirlo role" was recognized globally as the position its namesake perfected, picking inch-perfect passes for his teammates with a nonchalance and technique that etched his name among the greatest midfielders to have played the game. -- SherShah Atif

    22. Wayne Rooney

    Key accomplishments: Five-time English Premier League winner, UEFA Champions League winner, two-time PFA Young Player of the Year, 2004 Golden Boy Award, Premier League Hall of Fame inductee, Manchester United all-time top scorer

    Widely regarded as one of the most complete strikers to grace modern soccer, Rooney looked the full package upon scoring in his Premier League debut at just 16 years old. He went on to display grit, power and finishing ability over a stellar career for club and country. -- Atif

    23. Patrick Vieira

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, UEFA European Championship winner, three-time English Premier League winner, four-time English FA Cup winner, five-time Serie A winner, Premier League Hall of Fame inductee

    As captain of Arsenal, Vieira's composure, leadership and fearless spirit were central to the club's unprecedented season in 2003-04, when "The Invincibles" went undefeated to lift the English Premier League title. -- Atif

    Key accomplishments: UEFA Champions League winner, four-time LaLiga winner, four-time Copa del Rey winner, Copa América winner, all-time goal scorer for Uruguay

    A player with a knack for scoring goals, Suarez found the net wherever he went, whether that was Ajax, Liverpool, Barcelona or Atlético Madrid, making him one of the most fearsome strikers in the world during his heyday. -- Atif

    25. Gianluigi Buffon

    Key accomplishments: FIFA World Cup winner, FIFA World Cup Golden Glove Award (2006), 10-time Serie A winner, six-time Coppa Italia winner, 13-time Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award, most appearances in Serie A, most appearances for Italy, two-time UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year winner

    The talismanic goalkeeper enjoyed a 28-year career, and he is arguably the greatest player at his position following a trophy-laden career. That he was named the UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year at 39 years old is a testament to his ageless class. -- Atif


    Source: Ranking the top 25 men's soccer players of the 21st century

    ‘Men And Women’s Soccer Salaries Can’t Be The Same’ Says RFEF Presidential Candidate


    Parera is a sports lawyer running for the presidential post.

    Europa Press via Getty Images

    Sports lawyer Eva Parera, a candidate to become president of Spain’s national soccer federation (RFEF) ahead of an election scheduled for this fall, is not convinced that male and female soccer players warrant equal pay. Not now, at least.

    “With respect to salaries, they (women’s) cannot be the same because they don’t generate the same revenues,” Parera—who would be the first woman to assume the role—told El Mundo in an interview (Spanish) published this week. “It’s not a question of female players not being good, but because women’s football (soccer) has only recently become professionalized.”

    These comments come as professional women’s soccer enters the spotlight again, with the Olympic Games competition in France welcoming some of the best female players worldwide. Barcelona star Aitana Bonmatí, the current Ballon d’Or holder, is among those competing for a highly fancied Spain team.

    Of course, there is a context around Parera’s views. The Catalan is mainly concerned with Spanish women’s soccer rather than other countries, where the overall quality, popularity and money-making potential vary. Even so, considering Spain has transformed into a women’s soccer force—at international and club level—over recent years, it makes for eye-catching reading.

    Women’s Soccer Pedigree In Spain

    Spanish women’s soccer boasts an enviable status. As well as prizewinners like Bonmatí, her team Barcelona is the queen of Europe after winning the last two Champions Leagues. There have also been some impressive attendances in Spain, none more so than in 2022 when 91,648 packed into Camp Nou for Barça’s home clash against Wolfsburg. That’s still the record for a women’s match.

    Bonmatí (right) is one of Barcelona's best talents.

    UEFA via Getty Images

    In terms of salaries, although La Roja star Alexia Putellas is one of the top earners anywhere, the U.S. women’s players generally dominate in this regard. Playing its part, the U.S. soccer federation, overseeing the most successful women’s national side, has led efforts to close the gender pay gap at competitions.

    That all doesn’t easily translate to Spain, however. For all its women’s teams’ success and the players’ commercial potential—including off-field earnings—they are incomparable to the elite male players, stars in another galaxy. There, the marketability, revenues and wages are just greater.

    For clarity, it’s all relative; while the average La Liga pro pockets more than a headline star in Liga F, top women’s players will earn more than men playing farther down the soccer pyramid. Generally speaking, however, there are differing opinions on what the overall landscape should look like.

    For one, the Real Betis full-back Hector Bellerín, outspoken on social and environmental issues, wants parity. “I desire it. It’s fair that we all earn the same,” he told a Cadena SER podcast (Spanish). “In men’s soccer, we have to be the first to help out.”

    His take prompted a response from Parera on X. “He (Bellerín) doesn’t make the same as (Kylian) Mbappé, just like he doesn’t make the same as a player from Real Betis’ women’s team,” she said. “Talking about equal pay makes no sense. “We must work to make women’s soccer as attractive and profitable as men’s.”

    The RFEF’s Challenge

    Finances are not the only thing on the RFEF’s mind.

    Despite its chief men’s team winning the European Championship and the senior women’s side reigning as World Cup champions, the federation’s recent reputation is poor. Ex-president Luis Rubiales is serving a three-year soccer ban after kissing Spain player Jenni Hermoso without consent. His successor, interim boss Pedro Rocha, is now suspended, too—due to an infringement.

    Alongside managing the sport day-to-day across the country, the next face of the organization will need to improve its image. Growing women’s soccer—ideally making it self-sustainable—is one part of the jigsaw.


    Source: ‘Men And Women’s Soccer Salaries Can’t Be The Same’ Says RFEF Presidential Candidate



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